Zwarte Piet: A Study in Sensitivity
In the midst of this international debate, as a Dutch National, I just can’t keep my opinion to myself as much as I wish I could.
I just listened to the useful conversation held on Q, the CBC Radio program in which some of the disputants of the Zwarte Piet tradition have endured death threats, so heated has the nationalistic fervor been whipped up. In this back and forth, no one likes to mention the history which is so clearly racist. (St Nikolas was a Greek living in Turkey during medieval times who was sainted and his bones brought to a part of Italy under Spanish rule. Thus the Dutch mythology is that Sinterklaas is Spanish and travels to the Netherlands from there every December. His helper is said to have been a slave who was freed by the kindly saint and was so grateful that he devoted his life to the man. Slave, or indentured servant, his subservient status can clearly be defined as a classist if not a racist continuum in the Sinterklaas story.) My question is: what do today’s black and brown-skinned citizens of the Netherlands think of the story and the tradition? If they have any qualms, their voices should be heard. They are still victims in this dichotomy. If the Sinterklaas tradition shouldn’t be done away with altogether, then it should at least evolve where immediately the face painting is abolished, and then Zwarte Piet written out of the modern pageantry. He must of course be referred to in a historical context so that children learn about his true message, which is that he was a kindly character who passed out candy to good children, but was also a victim of racism his entire life.
Every myth changes throughout history as cultural trends come and go. When I was a child, Piet beat badly behaving children with switches made up of sharp sticks. This part of the story is never mentioned today because beating children, even as a reprimand for bad behavior, is culturally frowned upon in the Western world.
I always had a queasy feeling in my belly every time I saw a painted black face. And I was raised by Dutch parents and hold Dutch nationality. Maybe it’s because I never lived in the Netherlands that I don’t truly understand the Dutch, but I believe the face painting should have ended the back when the world’s hippies convened in Amsterdam’s The Dam park and purportedly launched the Netherlands into the forward-thinking, compassionate country that it’s supposed to be.